Planning a Potter's Sabbatical
by Dick Lehman
"So, when are you going to take your sabbatical?"
The question came from my long-time friend, Jeff, a professional in
the mental health field, during a three-month sabbatical he was enjoying
as one of his job benefits. Jeff's question was meant largely in jest,
with that twist of sarcasm that I have come to appreciate in him. We
both knew that potters and other self-employed folks can't afford, and
subsequently don't take, sabbatical leaves.
Even if I could afford the cost of a sabbatical (which I couldn't),
what would happen to my business in the meantime? How could I keep the
shelves stocked? Who would keep the store open? I couldn't just walk
away from my retail business and leave customers of seven years in the
lurch. "Impossible," I thought.
But the question remained with me, unanswered. I thought back to the
year before, when during a visit to Arizona State University, Professor
Randy Schmidt showed me the university's facility and told me about
the visiting artist program, then asked, "So why don't you apply to
come out and spend several months with us?"
"It just isn't possible," I'd replied.
Four years later I took a two-month sabbatical there. What happened
in the meantime? How did the impossible become possible? Perhaps my
story can serve as a model for how full-time and part-time clay artists
might incorporate renewal time into their lives.
There are some things in my background which may have predisposed me
to want to take seriously Jeff's and Randy's questions. From my undergraduate
and graduate training in the ministry and helping professions, I had
come to expect that a sabbatical a period of paid time off from
my profession would periodically be a part of my personal and
professional development. I had always believed in the value and legitimacy
of sabbaticals, that in them was the potential for refreshment, discovery,
Yet, after having been a full-time potter for seven years, I found
it difficult to embrace my earlier beliefs. At first I couldn't decided
if I thought sabbaticals were unnecessary for creative artists, or if
I had just caved in to the realities of running a small business. (There
seems never to be enough time or money.) Perhaps it was a mixture of
It was easy for me to see and to justify the need for sabbaticals for
those in education and the helping professions. They are, after all,
involved in a difficult, high calling, and need time to 'recharge their
And it was easy for me to justify the affordability of sabbaticals
for people in those professions. After all, the institutions for which
they worked provided the sabbaticals for them just part of the
benefits package; no charge.
As I more carefully examined these assumptions and beliefs, I discovered
that I have personal needs similar to those in educational pursuits.
And I concluded that I have a similar, difficult, high calling, whether
in my one-of-a-kind forms or in my production ware, to produce works
that reflect and communicate with integrity the values I hold important.
I realized that those with paid sabbaticals are not really getting
a "free lunch." They earn their sabbaticals in the same way that they
earn the rest of their salary and job benefits. They can take a sabbatical
because their employer believes in its value and plans accordingly.
Finally, I realized a need to enlarge my thinking about the length
and nature of sabbaticals. Perhaps they did not need to be a year in
length to have a similar value. What if one considered a six-month,
a three-month, even a two-month break?
For me to seriously consider a sabbatical I needed to answer two major
questions. First, could I make a philosophical commitment to it? Do
I really need it? Am I worth it? Am I a professional deserving and needing
the benefits of a sabbatical?
Second, would I, as both employer, and employee in my own business,
step to the side, put on my 'employer hat' and discipline myself to
do the hard work necessary to organize and plan the specifics of budget,
staffing and production management?
Planning and Budgeting
Armed with goals and a timetable, I began contacting universities,
art centers and individuals. At the same time, I checked with friends
and contacts in ceramics circles about ideas they might have for sabbatical
Slowly, a list of possibilities began to develop that might match up
with my timetable and interests. Two years before I planned to take
my sabbatical, I contacted locations that seemed most promising. Finally,
one year before I planned to leave my studio, I drew up a full-fledged
proposal and sent it to the place which looked most attractive, and
where my needs and theirs seemed to match best.
Concurrent with this planning, I had to solve two other major issues:
how was I going to pay for this experience; and how to staff and manage
my studio while away? I immediately went to work on the funding issue.
Initially, it appeared the most insurmountable. How could the business
afford to support me for two unproductive months. My family seemed barely
able to get by on what I was earning.
To complicate the situation, it was important to expect no salable
pots from my sabbatical no income. I wanted to be completely
free of marketing requirements. I was looking for a time to experiment,
So what could I do? I searched for ways to increase production while
at the same time expanding my retail and wholesale base. Gradually,
I began funneling some of the profits into savings for the sabbatical.
By starting early, the sabbatical fund was spread out over two years.
As a result, some of my savings actually worked for me by producing
Now, admittedly this is a very disciplined approach, very linear, left-brain
thinking. If it is just not in you to work in this manner, yet you believe
in the idea of a sabbatical, perhaps you could go about your planning
in the same way my friend Jim went about getting his new bass boat.
"Hey," he said to me, "there aint' no way a man can save up enough to
pay cash for a new boat....at least this man can't. So I told my wife,
'There's a few things in life that are just important enough that a
man should oughta have 'em. So I'm gonna buy that boat.' Now there's
one thing for sure...I do pay my bills. If there's a bill every month
for that boat, I will pay it. I'll just work a couple extra hours on
the side, and I'll enjoy the boat starting now." If you believe as much
in the value of a sabbatical as Jim did in his bass boat, perhaps it's
worth borrowing for.
The staffing issue was a bit more complex. I have one part-time and
one full-time person working for me. During my sabbatical I wanted the
studio to remain productive, and the retail sales area open. Accomplishing
this depended on two things: the quality of the staff; and how I prepared
them for my absence.
Let's consider the second part first. Planning for an absence forced
me to move the staff into areas of production, management and decision
making that I probably would have been, otherwise, slow to do had the
situation not demanded it. What I discovered was that they were both
ready and able to handle these areas.
But regardless of how well I worked at preparing my staff, the key
ingredient was that they were committed and qualified people of integrity,
who would be as careful with my business as they would had it been their
Approaching the Sabbatical Host
My first choice for a sabbatical location was Arizona State University,
which offers a visiting artist position to professors and professional
potters. The university provides studio space, select materials and
equipment, and adjunct professor status to the visiting artists
My application contained a proposal that included the following elements:
1) a resume (thorough background information outlining who I am, where
I've been, what I've done); 2) a goal statement identifying what I was
looking for in a sabbatical from the university and its general/geographical
location; 3) a timetable stipulating when I was free to come, and for
how long; 4) clarification of how this location and what it had to offer
meshed with my goals; 5) identification of what I had to offer the university
from both my experience and academic background; and 6) definition
of the sorts of claywork I wanted to pursue.
A.S.U.'s initial response was to suggest a meeting to discuss my proposal.
I financed a two-day trip to Arizona and, subsequently, was invited
One of my philosophical as well as pragmatic commitments toward a sabbatical
was to get as broad a range of exposure to new ideas as possible in
a short two months. During my time at A.S.U., I participated in a variety
of activities. The following list is representative: I sat in on some
university classes; had numerous visits with the ceramics faculty and
made several presentations to university classes; met with the art faculty
from several other schools and universities; and spent time with all
the graduate students in ceramics as well as some students from a variety
of other disciplines. Spending several afternoons studying the work
in the permanent ceramics collection (contemporary and early-American
work) was a real treat; and, on one occasion, I had the pleasure of
a three-hour personal tour of the collection with curator Rudy Turk.
I also attended the Yuma Crafts Symposium, visited local production
potters, and the Acoma Pueblo, plus several community art centers, museums,
art fairs and galleries.
I tried to do all this and my claywork on a schedule that had me "working"
a maximum of six hours a day. With the remaining "free time,' my family
and I spent time together hiking, traveling, playing, absorbing what
this part of the Southwest had to offer. Certainly this change of pace,
new setting, and the stimulation from many contacts and activities provided
a rich foundation for personal and professional growth.
In the past I have been intrigued with the interplay between controlled
disciplined forms, and the spontaneous, accidental decoration of the
flames which occurs, for example, in raku firing. The time at A.S.U.
furthered that intrigue. I found the faculty to be a wealth of resources.
Don Schaumburg has worked in raku for years. Jeanne Otis specializes
in color. (See "Jeanne Otis: A Color Dialogue" in the January 1988 CM.)
Randy Schmidt piqued my curiosity with some unusual pumice glazes of
varying textures and colors.
These influences encouraged me to continue exploring the interplay
between the intentional and the accidental but with an altogether
new color palette.
I tried two approaches that showed particular promise. The first involved
using a modification of a flameware body. Thrown forms, with a Cone
011 copper stain, were smoked in a covered bed of sawdust, re-oxidized,
and then reduced once more in the sawdust until cool; or smoked in a
covered bed of sawdust for only five minutes, then removed and water-quenched
almost immediately as the stain produced rapid and dramatic color changes
in re-oxidation. (Quenching "fixes" the colors as it stops the re-oxidation.)
The second method focused on saggar-fired porcelains. Brick saggars
built in kilns were partially filled with sawdust. Fresh leaves and
weeds were used to form "beds" for the pots. Copper sulfate, cobalt
sulfate, and/or cupric nitrate mixed with rock salt in a 1:1 ratio was
sprinkled in troughs around the pieces. As the saggar was filled with
sawdust, additional portions of the sulfate/salt mixture were placed
on shards adjacent to the piece, in layers, from bottom to top. High
quality charcoal was also scattered in the sawdust next to the pots,
and provided a range of starburst pastels ranging from pinks and oranges
to greens and blues.
Pots were fired in a range from Cone 013 to Cone 10. Careful control
of saggar venting produced, on the same pot, a random range of pastels,
plus deep blacks and clean whites. Some weed and leaf imaging remained
at all temperature ranges.
I will be quick to say that alongside these two promising approaches
were many unsuccessful approaches and I contributed significantly
to the A.S.U. shard pile. But I contributed happily, because a sabbatical
is a time to play, to experiment, and to fail.
Occasionally this experimentation leads to the unexpected, pleasing
discovery the kind of discovery that comes when one puts aside
the demands/constraints of marketing and showing, and simply responds
to the inquisitive and curious "what-ifs" within oneself, then takes
risks accordingly. For me, it is the interplay between risks, between
control and spontaneity, between the intentional and accidental which
makes for the most beautiful pots and the most interesting lives.
Finding Sabbatical Opportunities
Do sabbatical opportunities really exist? The key, I think, is not
to allow "time" to be a final definition. A sabbatical is, at least
in part, an attitude: an attitude of defining needs for personal and
professional development; an attitude of adventure with a willingness
to search out the opportunities, and at times even daring to create
them; an attitude of commitment toward planning and implementing a scheme
which fits our time, budgets, commitments and goals; an attitude of
relationship one which involves others in growth.
Can part-time clay artists take sabbaticals? Of course! But to plan
yours you may need to think in unconventional ways. You may need to
create an opportunity to match your goals. Take my friend, Dave, for
example: he has twice scheduled a whole summer of volunteering in other
peoples' studios - two or three weeks at each one. He was interested
in expanding his view of form and style. And he wanted to be influenced
by the geography from a variety of areas in the States. So he developed
a sabbatical plan to meet his needs.
Does developing your own sabbatical sound too rigorous? If so, you
may choose to take advantage of existing or easily-managed opportunities:
workshops, conferences or symposia; summer courses at colleges or universities;
volunteer work for another clay artist for two weeks free of charge;
potters' tours to England, Japan, or elsewhere; or plan your own workshop,
special firing, tour, etc.
The most exciting opportunities, I am convinced, are yet to come.
The author owns and operates Dick Lehman, Potter, Incorporated, a studio
pottery in Goshen, Indiana.
This article is reprinted with expressed permission from
the June/July/August 1989 issue of Ceramics Monthly Magazine, PO Box
6102, Westerville OH 43086-6102, USA; www.ceramicsmonthly.org
© Dick Lehman, 1989. All rights reserved.